Guest review: Matthew Giles on Parting With My Sex by Lucy Chesser

Sydney University Press

reviewed by Matthew Giles

In his CAL/Meanjin essay of last year, Paul Daley argued that young Australians aren’t coerced by the state to think about their history in militaristic terms. He said that they do it on their own, because a militarised history is naturally more interesting.

He was rebutting Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds who, in their book What’s Wrong With Anzac?, claim that the disproportionate focus on military involvement in our history is the result of an ideological process, rather than a natural one. Daley said that, as a birth-of-the-nation narrative, Gallipoli is ‘just more alluring because of its mournful narrative of sacrifice overseas’. Though he agreed that the facts of Gallipoli contain very little in the way of nation-building material, he believed that the narrative of Gallipoli, fact or no, will always trump other foundational narratives for one reason: they are boring.

To rebut, I ask: is cross-dressing boring? Are male, cross-dressing prostitutes boring? Is a woman who travels on her own by boat from Ireland to Australia, who poses as a man, who marries three women, who, apparently, fathers a child, and who makes international headlines when her impersonation is discovered after 20 years of getting away with it, boring? Or is this not the stuff of legend? Are these figures drab, or do they possess every ounce of cunning, chutzpah, and readiness to sacrifice as the figure of the Anzac soldier? Historian and teacher Lucy Chesser is banking on the latter with her first historical book, Parting With My Sex.

The first thing to know about this book is that it is an academic work, written mainly for an academic audience, or at least an audience already interested in gender or Australian history. Chesser recreates famous incidents of cross-dressing in Australia from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, informing the reader about those incidents and what they meant within their contexts. She writes of the cultural myth, partially rooted in fact, of colonial girls dressing in male clothing in order to get work and avoid harassment in a male environment. In the mid-19th century, this particular story was used to numerous ends, including but not limited to: accentuating Australia’s reputation as a land of inversions, where dogs did not bark, trees did not give shade, and women dressed as men; illustrating the pragmatic nature of Australian women, and to thus imply Australia’s superiority over bourgeois, fanciful Europe; and providing an exciting sexual potential to relationships between pioneering men (ie. could the man you pan for gold with, and with whom you share a tent, be a woman?).

According to Chesser, in the mid- to late-19th century Australian culture regarded cross-dressing as curious rather than taboo, and it was tolerated to a surprising degree. Then, at the turn of the century, cross-dressing came to be seen as an expression of deviant sexuality, alongside other forms of social progress like the women’s rights movement. It was seen as a symptom of a deep social crisis that threatened to fundamentally alter the Australian way of life. Chesser shows that the changing meanings of cross-dressing over time register important cultural shifts in the development of Australia, and even reveal the historically and culturally contingent nature of similar arguments being made today about issues of gender and sexuality, particularly gay marriage.

Though the book is academic, it is also highly accessible. Cross-dressing is interesting in itself, but the idea of it taking place in colonial Australia is utterly fascinating. Daley is right to say that non-military Australian history as it is presented to us in popular and official forms is fairly dry, but the cases that Chesser recounts dissolve the church wafer version of history in the juicy illicit sexuality and grand deception.

These qualities are embodied in the figure of Edward De Lacy Evans, the above-mentioned woman who lived as a man for 20 years, marrying three wives and working as a miner. Chesser admits that many of the most urgent questions about Evans cannot be answered, but the questions themselves make him an interesting figure. Newspaper articles about Evans suggested that he deceived his wives, that they genuinely did not know that he had the body of a woman, and that he was driven to pose as a man and sleep with them by a severe case of nymphomania. But this warrants the question, how could Evans’ wives have not known his secret? They must have known, and if so, must they not have been similarly attracted to him? Isn’t this a sign of genuine love and sexual attraction, rather than mere nymphomania? The bordering-on-comedic naïveté they betray regarding the practicalities of Evans’ relationships opens up factual gaps from which traces of queer sexuality emerge – traces that suggest radical similarities between homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Difficult sentence: what I like most about Parting With My Sex is that it reveals how the boring narrative of Australia’s history that Daley claims drives schoolkids, in a non-ideological fashion, to the Anzac myth, is itself ideological. The existence and struggles of cross-dressing individuals in colonial-era Australia was unthinkable to me and the people with whom I spoke about Chesser’s book, because it and other struggles of marginalised identities has been de-emphasised in, or entirely erased from, mainstream accounts of Australian history. In What’s Wrong With Anzac?, Lake and Reynolds point out that Aboriginal resistances to colonisation, union and women’s movements have played a far greater role in shaping Australia than the invasion of Gallipoli, but that these histories are known to historians but not to the public, thus relegating to obscurity several versions of Australian history that could conceivably generate more interest and pride in young people than the one we currently have, without disproportionately focusing on military achievements. What this implies is that official historians and designers of curricula do not believe that Australians are able to take pride in the stories of people who aren’t white, male, heterosexual and gender-normative. Parting With My Sex powerfully challenges that belief.

Matthew Giles is a freelance writer living in Melbourne, and a PhD candidate at RMIT University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s